December 2, 2007 / 22 Kislev 5768
With the ongoing support of the Jewish Agency, the Ayalim Association is bringing about a social revolution in Israel. Inspired by the unwavering commitment of the previous generations who established the State of Israel, Ayalim is reviving the pioneering spirit on which Israel was founded. Its pioneers are idealistic college students who are settling Israel's North and South to strengthen these struggling national priority regions from within.
Through Ayalim, young college students from all over Israel live in distressed areas, peripheral towns and inner cities, volunteering with the local populations and working to rehabilitate the neighborhoods physically, educationally and socially. In the desert and rural areas, the students are literally building the villages with their own two hands, making barren places come alive through their determination and enthusiasm.
"With the Jewish Agency's support we have built three new student villages," says Dany Gliksberg, 28, deputy director and one of the founders of the Ayalim Association. "One in Acre, one in the northern kibbutz of Neve Ur and the other in the inner city of Dimona – and expanded our other ones."
Ayalim is named in memory of its founders’ friends, Eyal and Yael Sorek, a young couple who were murdered in a cold-blooded terrorist attack during the height of the second Intifada. To date, Ayalim has established eight student villages throughout the Negev and Galilee; a ninth village will be built in the Old City of Beersheva next summer. “People think that this country was established in 1948, but we are still establishing it,” says Dany.
With 430 young people currently living at their student villages, Ayalim is making an impact in Israel. "When we first started our organization we were outsiders," says Yuval Cohen, one of Ayalim’s founders and director of the student villages in the North. "No one was talking about Zionist values. Now, it has flourished into something beautiful, and we are growing all the time. There are many young people who want to do something meaningful."
"I am taking part in building the Negev, I am part of history and that's very exciting," says Adina Kruger, 23, who is studying art and education at Ben Gurion University and lives at Adiel, the first student village built by Ayalim. The village, which began as two caravans in the middle of the desert on a plot of land donated by the Jewish Agency, will turn five years old this December.
"These young people are the Rolls Royce of today's Zionism," said Zeev Bielski, Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, on a recent visit to Adiel. "They give up their private pleasures. Instead of lying on a beach in Goa (India) or making money, they are willing to settle the Negev and the Galilee, to help others and to sit for hours with senior citizens. They deserve support."
Students who join Ayalim are awarded academic scholarships and, in return, they spend 500 hours a year volunteering in the surrounding communities and leading critical social initiatives designed to reinforce local communities and effect real change from within. A year-and-a-half ago, when the student village in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona was established, its students opened a clubhouse for local youth on one of the neighborhood's roughest streets that was overrun with drugs, crime and violence. "A few months ago we got a letter from the police saying that the situation had improved so much that they didn't need their hourly patrols," says Dany.
Ayalim originally planned to build its student villages in the Negev only, but that changed during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 when Dany and the other founders of Ayalim were called up for emergency reserve duty. “We passed through Kiryat Shmona a few times and saw the desperate situation there. We decided that we had to do something. The minute we finished our service we started building an urban student village," says Dany.
As part of its ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the North and the Gaza perimeter communities in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, the Jewish Agency, through the support of the United Jewish Communities, Keren Hayesod and UIA Federations Canada, donated $3 million to Ayalim. The money was used to build villages in the northern cities of Kiryat Shmona, Hatzor and Acre, the first of Ayalim’s villages to include Arab students.
Additionally, the grant provided for student scholarships and allowed for a village to be built in Yachini, a rural settlement in the Gaza perimeter that has suffered terribly from the unrelenting influx of Kassam rockets fired from over the Gaza border.
"Our goal is to have ten student villages with 1,000 students who will work with about 20,000 youth each week," says Dany. With ten applicants for every available spot, Ayalim is well on its way to reaching that milestone. But Ayalim's goal goes beyond bringing students to live in underdeveloped areas of the Negev and the Galilee. The idea is that these students will become permanent residents of the North and South, building the economy and weaving a new social fabric that will inspire other Israelis to follow suit.
Towards this end, last year Ayalim began two new programs focused on entrereneurship and employment. Those interested in opening a small business attend a year-long entrepreneurship course and are also matched with a mentor who helps them come up with a business plan and strategy. With the assistance of the Jewish Agency, Ayalim has set up an investment fund to support these new business ideas. Ayalim has also implemented a job placement program where local employers receive incentives to hire students on a part-time basis during their senior year in return for offering them full-time positions following graduation.
"When you become part of a student village, it is very hard to go back to Tel Aviv," says Dany. "Right now, 85 percent of our graduates have chosen to stay in the Negev and the Galilee. But we have to check that number in 10 years. Now is the time to invest in young people. We help them find jobs and places to live, but the question is whether it is possible to stay in these areas after a few years. We believe that it is."